One of the most difficult parts of divorce is the impact it can have on your children. While adults have some control over the process, children have none. It can feel like their entire world has been turned upside down in an instant.
To make matters worse, children aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with intense feelings that can undermine their need for love and security.
The good news is kids are resilient. And counseling can help ease the transition and identify potentially harmful feelings that can be dealt with proactively.
Here are some essential things to know about counseling children through divorce.
- Helping Children Understand What’s Going On
- Dealing with Issues at Home and School
- Guiding Children to New Beginnings
Helping Children Understand What’s Going On
Children whose parents are going through a divorce are going to have questions, no matter what age they are. Parents need to understand what some of those questions will be and why they’re being asked. How a parent responds can either lessen fears or make a bad situation much worse.
What Your Child Feels and Thinks
Children are observant. Don’t think they will have no clue there are problems between you and your spouse long before thoughts of divorce crop up. Kids won’t openly voice their concerns as things play out, but below the surface, they will experience a variety of challenging changes, feelings and emotions. Some of these will include:
- Fear of the future
- Peer conflict
- Irrational risk-taking
These thoughts and feelings will manifest themselves in several ways. Depending on the age and circumstances, children may become sullen and withdrawn, have thoughts of suicide, lash out with violent physical behavior, or become more involved with drugs, alcohol, or sexual activities.
These reactions can be especially troublesome if the divorce process was sudden and unexpected or if one parent abdicates all responsibilities connected to the children. Although parents have a full plate of other divorce-related issues to deal with, kids should be at the top of the list, or the long-term psychological and emotional damage could be devastating.
Age Appropriate Messaging
As a parent, you’ll need to tailor what you say to your children based on how old they are.
Children of divorce five years old and younger will have some sense of what’s going on, so you’ll need to talk to them in high level and reassuring terms. Children at this age need to feel loved and understand that although change is taking place, both parents will still have a role in their children’s lives.
Children six to eight years old will have a better grasp of the situation and ask questions that convey their feelings and concerns. At this age, they are starting to develop relationships outside the home. This will color their thinking and how they’ll react. Be honest when responding to questions, but still keep answers in concrete terms.
By the time a child reaches nine years old, their judgmental abilities are much more focused. They are more curious about the world, but they also have less emotional control, especially when puberty starts to kick in. They may try to affix blame for the divorce, and as a parent, it’s up to you to steer them away from this line of thought. Even if you’re angry, pointing fingers will only cause more harm to an already bad situation.
School relationships with friends, teachers, coaches, and others outside the home become a bigger priority for pre-teens and influence how they react to divorce news.
From 12 to 14 years old, children can grasp much more complex ideas related to divorce. Emotionally, they will be a wreck as they battle the onset of puberty. This can produce wild and violent mood swings, so be prepared. Deep down, children at this age still need love and emotional support as much as ever.
At 15 and above, many children are well on their way to independence. They will try to deal with the emotional trauma of divorce on their own or retreat to drugs and increased sexual activity. As a parent, your messages need to be consistent and loving, despite the anger you’re likely to get in return.
Adult children are often living their own complex lives but still need reassurances. Keep your lines of communication open and give them quality time as you would younger children.
What Not to Say and Do
If you’re involved in a high-conflict divorce, you may not be able to help it when a sour attitude or anger bubbles over when talking to your children.
It’s easy to point fingers at the other spouse, especially when they’ve committed an unforgivable sin. However, when you vent your emotions onto your children, they are not equipped to deal with what you’re going through as an adult. You have to be fully aware of the need to edit your comments at all times.
Another thing you shouldn’t do is make your children go-between messengers between you and your spouse. “Tell your mom this” or “Let your dad know…” are harmful and abusive strategies that put children in the middle. It’s weak and not fair to your children to do this. You could be doing significant damage that may never fully heal when you place your children in the middle.
If your child does not want to talk about divorce, then go lightly. Don’t force the issue. Provide information as needed. But don’t feel the need to offer long-winded explanations. Children will generally ask questions when they’re ready and feel comfortable enough to seek answers.
Above all else, keep your adult divorce conversations private. Children of all ages are sponges, and they will take to heart comments you make to each other. While you may be able to process these remarks, a child is not yet fully capable or emotionally equipped to do the same thing at the same level as you.
Also, limit discussions about money and loneliness with your children. You’re piling on extra unneeded layers of guilt when you do this.
Finally, don’t dismiss your child’s feelings, whatever they may be. Every emotion is valid, and you must take the time to help children process these feelings in a non-judgmental and attentive way.
Dealing with Issues at Home and at School
Children as young as two or three may spend a good part of their day in the care of others. As parents, it’s up to you to make sure the messages and care your child needs during divorce are consistent and positive.
As difficult as it may be, children will need outside connections to their social networks more than ever. This will help them maintain a sense of normalcy at a time when normalcy will be at a premium at home.
Communication between you and your child’s school is essential. Often, children will act one way at home and a completely different way out of the home. The other thing is that school officials are trained to spot problems or will have years of experience dealing with other children of divorce, meaning they can be an excellent resource for you.
“It takes a village” definitely applies when helping children through divorce.
The Role of School Counselors
School counselors have always been an excellent resource to help children work through a variety of issues. Sometimes, those are performance-related. Other times, a counselor can offer guidance or answer questions if a child faces a difficult choice.
Because children going through a divorce will often act up in school, counselors are also an excellent partnering resource for parents who can’t always be available 24/7.
Teachers and classmates may not understand why someone has changed or has become a disruptive classroom problem. This can lead to abuse, bullying, academic underperformance, and more. Counselors are trained to spot problem areas and emotional triggers that may be the root cause of these problems.
Counselors advocate for finding solutions and work less toward punishment and more toward building bridges to a happier and more productive future.
They are also a vital resource and can coordinate messaging and treatment with parents to create a more holistic approach to helping a troubled child. If needed, counselors can also act as protectors for children experiencing divorce-related abuse or neglect at home.
After a divorce, counselors can also provide a stabilizing presence in a child’s life. Post-divorce follow-up is a critical part of helping children regain their mental health and adjust to their new reality.
Online Counseling for Teens
In addition to divorce, teens also face a myriad of other issues that can overwhelm them. Substance abuse, sexuality, relationships, depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, not fitting in, and other related problems can simply be too much to handle when a divorce is thrown into the mix.
Counseling with a trained therapist can offer significant relief and help a troubled teen find solutions. Many teens are reluctant to meet in person with a therapist, which only adds to their anxiety and the stigma of needing help.
A less threatening experience that many teens turn to (especially during the Covid-19 pandemic) is online counseling. Sessions with the therapist take place in the privacy of a teen’s home at convenient times later in the day or into evening hours.
There are lots of providers that offer this service, but the one we like best is TeenCounseling.com. This site is designed specifically to address the unique mental health issues teens face with a network of more than 1,000 specialized therapists who can focus on things like bullying, eating disorders, depression, stress, and divorce-related emotional challenges.
Sessions are available by phone, text, or video call. Counseling is confidential but the therapist will alert you if your child threatens to harm themselves or others.
Guiding Children to New Beginnings
The end of a divorce doesn’t necessarily signal the end of the help a child may need.
Both home and school efforts should address immediate and intense concerns that are causing acute distress for a child.
Anger, fear that produces crying or causes significant withdrawal or depression, and despair that may lead to thoughts of suicide need to be dealt with ASAP.
Focusing on acceptance, reminding a child that a divorce is not their fault, and providing reassurance about the future should also be short-term goals. Working out co-parenting and custody issues should take these things into account. Parents must compromise for the good of their children. It’s not easy, especially in an emotionally charged environment.
If it helps, a mediator or a divorce coach can be time and money well spent to keep the process civil and moving forward. In many states, a parenting class is required before a judge will sign-off on the divorce.
Transitioning Over the Long-Term
There should be no timetable for how long it takes a child to orientate themselves to a new environment. Going from a two-parent home to two one-parent homes can throw even the best children for a loop.
Also, as a child grows older, their emotional needs will change. Busy parents may not have the fortitude it takes to deal with these changes on their own. Long-term counseling can provide a buffer and a safe space for children to process these changes. An impartial resource can be a welcome sense of relief for any child challenged by divorce or life issues.
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